Unleash Your Headphones' Full Potential With A USB DAC And Amplifier

So you've picked out the perfect pair of headphones, but they sound a little flat and quiet coming from your computer's crappy built-in audio. Here's a little gadget that will make those headphones sound much better.

What a DAC/Amp Combo Does

When you play music from your computer or mobile device, it goes through a Digital-Analog Converter (DAC) and an amplifier. The DAC converts the audio from a digital signal to an analogue one (obviously), and the amplifier is what sends it to your headphones. The problem is, most devices don't have very good DACs or amps built in. So, if you get a nice high-end pair of headphones, you may still be getting relatively crappy sound from your computer or MP3 player. That's where an external DAC/amp combo comes in. (If you're just using the default iPod headphones, turn back now. A DAC isn't going to help you at all.)

Routing your audio through one of these devices will bypass their lame sound card and do two things: 1) increase the quality of the sound, and 2) boost it so you don't have to turn the volume up so loud. You don't need to be an intense audiophile to notice a difference, either. I noticed a huge difference in sound volume, and a pretty solid difference in quality, especially in the bass. The bass coming out of my computer's sound card sounded like a bass drum playing from a tiny speaker into my ear. The bass coming out of a DAC sounded like like a tiny, actual bass drum pumping beats into my ear. It's hard to explain without using buzzwords like "fuller sound" and "higher range", but trust me — after you listen to your headphones on one of these bad boys, going back will just make everything sound flatter.

Note that you can only get the full benefit of a DAC/amp combo with your desktop or laptop computer, via USB or SPDIF. While many of them have adapters for iPods and other mobile devices, the DAC half of the device won't actually work. Only the amp half will. This is still great for giving your sound a boost in volume if it's coming out too quiet (which is particularly noticeable with higher-end, higher-impedance headphones), but you won't really hear an increase in quality. Some also have little built-in equaliser settings, so you can boost up the bass or mids with the flip of a switch. So, the benefits aren't quite as great with portable devices, but depending on your tastes and your headphones, they might be worth it — but there is some debate.

Which DAC/Amp Combo to Buy

You have a lot of different DACs to choose from, though the Fiio line is extremely popular, and the one with which I have experience.Here are a few of the more popular Fiio models, and which one you should buy based on their strengths:

  • The $US25 Fiio E6 is designed to be connected to portable devices like the iPod (through an adaptor sold separately). It's perfect for those that don't want to spend a lot of extra money, but who's headphones could use a bit of extra volume. It also has settings for boosting the bass and mids, if you're looking for a bit of extra power in one of those areas.
  • The $US88 Fiio E7 is designed for both mobile devices and computers. It can either connect to your iPod as an amp or your computer as a DAC/amp combo, making it a good all-around choice. It isn't filled with extra features, but does have a rather saucy bass boost knob for you dubstep nuts out there.
  • The $US99 Fiio E10 — my DAC of choice — is designed to connect to computers via USB. It has better sound quality than the E7 at a comparable price point, but it doesn't work on mobile devices. Again, though, many argue that portable amps aren't necessary, so unless you find your headphones are too quiet on your iPod, you may be better off just going with the E10.
  • The $US150 Fiio E17 combines the sound quality of the E10 with the portability and feature set of the E7. As such, it's perfect for those that need an amp on the go, a higher quality DAC on their computer, and are willing to spend a bit more money to get them.

Of course, these aren't the only models out there, and Fiio isn't the only brand that makes DACs. They are, however, some of the most popular, and with good reason — they're about the highest quality you're going to find in the sub-$US100 price point. Audioengine's DACs are also quite popular, albeit a bit more expensive. You get the idea, though: which one you buys will depend on your headphones, the device you're using to play the audio, and your personal preferences. Before you buy, read reviews and check out forums like Head-Fi for more detailed information on each model, especially when pertaining to a specific set of headphones. I've also found the Audiophile subreddit over at Reddit to be full of especially helpful and honest people. As long as you do your research, you should end up with something that takes your headphones from good to great with almost no effort.

Do you have any experience with DACs and amps? Share your thoughts, findings and other opinions in the comments below.


Comments

    Unfortunately android based portable devices don't support this, but star this to help point it out to google.

    http://code.google.com/p/android/issues/detail?id=24614

    I know this is specifically about cheaper, lightweight solutions, but you can get a mighty good USB audio interface for a pretty cheap $250. It's professional-quality input/output interface (with brilliantly A2D and D2A converters)--headphones capable of outputting from 9Hz to 45KHz (no, really). But it's designed for Computers, specifically targeting home/small professional studios.

    http://www.native-instruments.com/#/en/products/producer/komplete-audio-6/

    The great things about the FiiO DAC/Amps (and their competitors) is that you can now get decent sound for about a hundred bucks. It's a good time for the casual listener to find out what difference a simple DAC can make!

    It's remarkable how much enjoyment you can get out of modest setup, especially if you start with quality, high-bitrate rips, preferably flacs. But if your library is 128kbps MP3s, don't bother spending money on hardware... Poo in = poo out, no matter how expensive the hardware.

    How does this compare to PC based soundcards, and if room was available, would we not be better off purchasing and installing one of those?

      -- Glances over at partly built DAC
      -- Remembers the parts needed are still on back order
      -- Thinks 'Maybe I should have just bought one'
      -- Realizes rolling your own DAC is much more interesting.

        -- Looks at [custom] keyboard design
        -- Adds rotary controls to sides
        -- Adds DAC
        -- Suspects "feature creep" will ensure the design never gets finished

    I bought a E10 about 6 months ago and it shits on the standard audio out on my comp. That plus a set of AKG K242's and im in audio bliss.

    You should note in your article that Ipods and Iphones have a good DAC in them already, to the point where they are far from being the limiting factor in an audio system's performance.

    Also, to anyone looking at a DAC+Amp combo, and are not in a rush, check out NwAvGuy's website and upcoming Objective 2 Amplifier and Objective DAC. The whole goal is to produce a bit of equipment that can compete with the $1500+ pieces of equipment, for under $200. Available in around a month I think! Exciting stuff! Link:http://nwavguy.blogspot.com.au/

    Still prefer my Xonar Essence STX over any of these little punchy USB things.

    I work in a high-end Hi-Fi shop, and we recently got the Arcam rPac, for those of you that have headphones that costed over $400, this is an amazing investment! At about $399, it's a tiny little DAC, which can drive Sennheiser HD 800s to a level that DACs that cost about $700+ can't get them to sound like!
    It's an amazing DAC, pick it up! :D

      Agreed. After one listen to rPac, Presonus Inspire had to be retired.

    Hifiman HM101 is a great chip, better than most Fiio's
    ODAC / 02 is best choice best bang for buck.

    Also DAC's sound much better than soundcards ($60 gets you top tier for soundcards for a DAC)
    Another good DAC and ADC is the Behringer UCA202

      Please suggest a DAC between these two choices: Hifiman HM101 and Behringer UCA202

    I know that this primarily is made for headphones but, would this help increase the sound quality on my bose companion 3's?

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